Warren Buffett controls Nevada’s legacy utility. Elon Musk is behind the solar company that’s upending the market. Let the fun begin. ... SolarCity’s success is partly because the government provides subsidies and enables an arrangement called net metering, which allows homeowners with panels to sell back to the grid any solar energy they don’t use. This helps offset their cost of power when the sun’s not shining. Like more than 40 other U.S. states, Nevada forces utilities to buy the excess energy at rates set by regulators—usually the same rate utilities charge (hence, the net in net metering). In Nevada, it’s worked well. So well, in fact, that NV Energy, the state’s largest utility, is fighting it with everything it’s got. ... In just a decade, solar has gone from an enviro’s dream to a serious lobby that will be fighting these kinds of battles nationwide for years. ... Power companies may not be winning any popularity contests, but they’re developing their own renewable energy to keep up with changing attitudes and to meet state mandates.
Since launching in 2006, it has raised billions of dollars and installed hundreds of thousands of home solar systems, more than anyone in America. But lately SolarCity is in deep trouble. Customers aren't signing up in the numbers they did two years ago, back when oil was trading at more than $100 a barrel. U.S. lawmakers are investigating the company's financial practices. Earlier this year, in the span of two months, the company's stock lost 70 percent of its value. ... The company, in fact, could be one of the most risk-laden in operation today. To install solar systems across 27 states and Mexico, SolarCity takes on gobs and gobs of debt — billions of dollars a year. The eventual goal is to create a massive network of home solar systems. The problem is, if customers stop paying their SolarCity energy bills or investors stop lending, the company will blow up like the subprime housing bubble. ... As they built solar systems on one rooftop after another, they also burned through more and more cash. To attract more lenders, the company packaged and resold the debt to banks as complex bonds and other financial products that handed the financiers shares of SolarCity's tax credits.